Teachers find Obama not the friend they had expected

WASHINGTON — When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed merit pay for teachers and lifting the cap on charter schools, the head of the California NAACP stood by his side.

And when the Los Angeles school board voted to approve a plan that could turn over a third of its schools to private operators, Latino members and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa led the charge.

The nation's public school teachers are feeling the squeeze from all sides these days, and some of the heat is coming from unlikely sources: minorities and longtime Democratic allies.

One of them is President Barack Obama, who is irking teachers by suggesting that student test scores be used to judge the success of educators.

The pressure is particularly intense in California, where U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the state has "lost its way" with public schools.

In an attempt to improve California's schools, the Obama administration is threatening to withhold federal stimulus money if the Golden State does not rescind a state law that prevents the state from tying test scores to teacher performance.

None of this is exactly what teachers had in mind when they knocked on doors to help elect Obama.

"It takes more than the ability to fill in bubbles to be considered an educated person," Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers, said in a letter to Duncan. "We thought President Obama understood that."

As the battles intensify, longtime political alliances are shifting, said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute, a nonprofit public-policy center at California State University, Los Angeles.

"They're in flux. There's no question about that," he said, adding that "teacher unions feel somewhat chagrined" with what they're hearing from Washington.

David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association and its 340,000 members, said teachers had high hopes for Obama but that so far there has been little change.

Indeed, when it comes to education policies, he said it's hard to distinguish Obama from his predecessor, former President George W. Bush, who placed a premium on high-stakes student testing.

"To be perfectly honest, it's disappointing again," Sanchez said. "Our perception is it's more of the same, and that's not good, because we thought we were going to be able to change something, make some true reform in public education."

Ironically, the teacher unions find themselves opposing some of their former members.

Alice Huffman, the NAACP's president since 1999, helped lead fights against school vouchers and merit pay when she worked as an organizer for the CTA for 13 years. Her thinking has definitely changed, which is why she was standing next to a Republican governor last month.

"The only place the NAACP can be is with this governor," Huffman said. "If the teacher unions put a better proposal on the table, we would stand with them."

For Huffman, the battle is personal. She said too many inner-city minority children are stuck in failing schools and that immediate and revolutionary changes are needed.

"I have watched this for 20 years," Huffman said. "And I have nieces and nephews that have come out of the public schools that can't read, can't write, will never be employable. This is happening right here. ... Something profound has to happen. We can't wait another decade and another decade while people tweak with it."

In Los Angeles, Villaraigosa turned against the local teachers union to help push a school-choice plan that was approved last month. It will allow private operators to submit plans on how they'd run 250 schools, including many that failed to meet federal benchmarks on state tests. United Teachers Los Angeles, Villaraigosa's former employer, is opposed to the plan, saying it's the first step toward privatizing the school district.

In Sacramento, state legislators will soon meet in a special session to consider Schwarzenegger's "Race to the Top" plan. Among other things, it would allow merit pay and more charter schools while permitting the state to use test scores to evaluate teacher performance.

The latter is a requirement from the Obama administration, which is waving federal aid as an incentive. Duncan says the state must overturn its ban on the use of test scores to judge teachers before California can apply for a share of a $4.35 billion federal "Race to the Top" education fund.

Duncan, the former superintendent of schools in Obama's hometown of Chicago, gave a speech to the National Education Association this summer, saying teacher unions are "at a crossroads" and urging union members "to think differently about the role of unions in public education." He said the administration wants to produce the highest percentage of college graduates by the end of the next decade, a goal he called "our moon shot."

"It's not enough to focus only on issues like job security, tenure, compensation and evaluation," Duncan told the teachers. "You must become full partners and leaders in education reform. You and I must be willing to change."

As the unions are forced to play defense, their leaders are ready to fight back.

Sanchez, the CTA president, said the governor and president should both "get off the merit pay idea, because that ain't gonna work." And he said there's no evidence that students in charter schools perform any better than students in traditional public schools.

Sanchez said California teachers are trying to do more with less, noting that 18,000 teachers lost their jobs this year because of budget cuts. He said teachers are being unfairly picked on in the current education debate. And he said teachers know much more about teaching than Duncan.

"Forgive me for being so bold, but ... I am the expert in my classroom," Sanchez said. "I went to school. I have my credential. I've been teaching for more than 15 years, and I know what works and what doesn't work. You have a secretary of education who has never taught a day in his life, has never taught in a public elementary school, and comes from a superintendency in Chicago where he's running it like a business, where they create widgets. And we're not creating widgets. We're molding the future of the state in California."